Theatrical Review: HESHER

James Wallace

by: James Wallace
May 13th, 2011

Editor's note: This review was originally posted on January 27, 2010 as a Sundance Film Festival review.

Rating: 4.5/5

Writer: Spencer Susser, David Michôd
Director: Spencer Susser
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu

HESHER, a tale of angst and repression, tells the story of a young boy named T. J. (Devin Brochu) who loses his mother in a horrible accident two months prior to when we first meet him. T.J.'s father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), is in a vegetative state of depression and despair, hardly leaving the couch or putting on pants that don’t have a drawstring. T.J.’s grandmother is the only one who sees the situation for what it is, yet the son and the father can’t see or hear what she has to say. For both are hindered by the past they hold on to…

Along comes Hesher (Joseph-Gordon-Levitt), a stringy haired, greasy, tattooed Metalhead that carries the looming presence of the Grim Reaper in Guardian Angel form. Hesher embodies the boy’s pure unrestrained anger towards the world that has taken away his mother and given him his present situation. He materializes into T.J.’s life like a dark and cloudy storm, sometimes protecting the boy, while at other times making his life more of a living hell than it already is. And he is there to stay, as he quickly makes himself at home, moving in to the family’s house without warning or wary. From there…well, let’s just say that hell breaks loose.


The only thing that seems to put a smile on T.J’s face in this time of depression is the presence of Nicole (Natalie Portman), an object of his affection in both a prepubescent crush and motherly form. Saving T.J. from a bully, the young woman enters just as quickly and randomly as Hesher. If he’s the storm, Nicole is the sunshine. But as they say, people are in your life for a reason and a season. For T.J., this season in his life is a hurricane…and he’s in the eye of it.

At its heart, HESHER is truly a story of grieving and loss, when you are at a point in your life where you just cannot move on, let alone accept the loss. For Paul, he becomes a zombie, ignoring the state his life is in, or even living for that matter. For T.J., it is quite the opposite, as he does not ignore but acknowledge, yet he is still unable to let go just the same - even to the point of attempting to buy back the family’s totaled car from the accident. And then the dark figure Hesher comes along, like a gas fire explosion (literally and figuratively), there to jar the family loose from the rut they are stuck in.

As Hesher, Gordon-Levitt becomes a chameleon, vacating from any signs of the earnest characters he often plays. In its place is a man without filter, limits, or hesitation. But Gordon-Levitt’s fantastic portrayal of Hesher is not evil, but rather one of 100% complete and total rebellion and anarchy. If anything says it all, it’s the giant middle finger tattoo he has on his back. A giant “fuck you” to the world as he turns his back on it again and again. And yet, what the actor thoughtfully brings to the role in that apathetic nature is an under-the-surface softness. Hesher's affection and care for the grandmother, to the point that he's kind enough to show her how to hit a bong. Picking up pieces of a plate off the ground after it has been thrown and broken by someone else (when he often flips tables himself and vacates the room). And of course his twisted love and protection for T.J., almost making you doubt that Hesher is a real person, but rather possibly an imaginary friend to the boy. Both the devil and the angel on T.J.'s shoulder so to speak.

While Gordon-Levitt’s performance is top-notch, the rest can also be said for the entire cast. Rainn Wilson similarly takes a bit of a departure from the roles we are so used to and fond of. He wears Paul’s skin like a suit two sizes too big and heavy, displaying like a mask the expression of depression on his somber face and in his droopy eyes. Natalie Portman's Nicole is a young lady in a quarter-life crisis state of depression, played with such honesty and vulnerability. There are moments where she looks uncomfortable in her own skin, which seems to be so tight it's suffocating her. So much so, you just want to hug her and tell he that everything is going to be okay. Which is where Devin Brochu steps in as T.J., serving as the tiny vote of confidence in the girl’s otherwise insecure world. Brochu plays the boy with a realistic and honest portrayal of childhood innocence and innocence lost to the degree that it’s downright heartbreaking. Again, another character you just want to hug and tell that everything is going to be okay.

Luckily, Hesher is there to do it for us, in the only way he knows how. By talking about his balls. But there, in his shocking yet oddly poetic monologue at the film's conclusion, as he delivers it to a elderly funeral crowd with a PBR in hand, Hesher reveals to us what everyone in life must at some point realize. That life can be shitty and unfair, but you have to look at what you do have versus what you don't. If not, you will move through life never truly living it. And while he may be an outcast of society, we see that Hesher is the only one that really understands what he has chosen to turn against. The only person really living life.

For his first feature, director Spencer Susser (who wrote and directed the award-winning short about a zombie love story entitled I LOVE SARAH JANE) displays this melancholy world beautifully, both visually and on the page. The film is extremely well-written, filled with moments in which one doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or feel terribly awkward. And yet the layered script stays above the surface, never hammering its message into your head, only going below through well-inserted symbolism and well-placed monologues. Visually speaking, the film is just as well-arranged, at times kicking you in the balls like the Metal themes it’s infused with, while at other times unfolding like an emotion-filled concerto.

In the end, HESHER is just that. It's operatic in nature, with ups and downs and more downs and ups that unfold as a great comedic tragedy (or tragic comedy depending on how you view life.) It is a complex, heavy, and often humorous film that gets right to the heart of pain and subsequent convalesce. Sometimes with a middle finger held high, while at other times with the tenderness of a gentle touch.

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